Deborah Howell And Keri Tombazian Review "A Play is a Poem"

September 26, 2019

Deborah Howell's Review:

It was all a-buzz on the fountain-splashed patio outside the Mark Taper Forum for the world premiere of Ethan Coen’s “A Play Is A Poem.” And it only got buzzier as I looked to my left and realized that the grinning guy in the tan corduroy cap was none other than Brad Pitt.  He was accompanied by a few bodyguards, but no date. He graciously stopped to take a selfie with a couple of autograph hounds; then again stopped for the paparazzi to take a few shots before giving one of his trademark nods and entering the theatre.  I didn’t even try to take a photo…..I just soaked up the moment and sighed.

The evening only got better as the lights went down and the first of five short stories unfolded—quite literally with a bang.  “The Redeemers” could not have been more Coen-Brothers-esque if it tried, and we laughed ourselves sideways through it. As far as I can figure, this series of stories is about affection, detection, and connection—and the quite different ways multiple generations of diverse Americans find their way to all of these things. In “The Redeemers”, the connection comes through 2 brothers in Appalachia trying to cover up the murder of their father (who’s now under the floorboards) when their third brother (a cop) comes to their door. Warped hilarity ensues. The communication is rudimentary at best, but each short line uttered is a comic masterpiece. It ends with an audience on fire.

Before the second (and each story following) the delightfully gamine songstress Nelly McKay had us smitten with her languorous original ballads that were as quirky as they were soulful. She also lays claim to one of the best comebacks of the night.  As she was playing piano and singing a torrid Billie Holiday version of “Solitude”, a friend drops by and brightly asks how she’s doing. A pregnant pause.  Then, her droll response: “I’m a torch singer.  I get paid to complain.”

The next act, “A Tough Case,” is a throwback to those early detective movies with the shotgun style of speech and the cigarette-infused gumshoe plot. But in playwright Ethan Coen’s hand's it’s all new again. Always a surprise turn of event or introduction of an interesting new character, and always a smart slice of Americana.  Standout performances by Peter Jacobson (forever “Dr. Taub” on House to me) and CJ Wilson as a hapless, accident-prone wannabe detective had the audience in paroxysms from line one.

I would say more, but certainly, don’t want to deprive anyone of the elements of surprise and fascination that come with this fine evening of theatre featuring this closely-knit acting ensemble at the top of its form.

Suffice to say that the audience (including a very vivacious William H. Macy who was shaking hands and taking photos with everyone who asked) left the Mark Taper Forum in high spirits—and you will, too.

“A Play Is A Poem” is the product of a decade of collaboration between playwright Ethan Coen and director Neil Pepe. Enjoy this trip across America in all its glory at the Mark Taper Forum through October 13th.


Keri Tombazian's Review:

These are fertile days for the Center Theatre Group, with crowds emerging from each of its three theatres bubbling over with the singular experience of sharing live theatre.  From John Leguizamo taking no prisoners at the Ahmanson in Latin History For Morons, to American theatre royalty Bill Irwin making sense of the mystifying work of Samuel Becket in On Becket at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, to the brand-spanking newly remodeled Music Center Plaza and restaurants. It is a happy time for Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ethan Coen to witness the world premiere of his new play, A Play Is A Poem, at the Mark Taper Forum, which sits nicely in that collective of theater joy. 

If the basic definition of a poem is “a sequence of stanzas—verses of metered feet,” then each of Coen’s five small stories—like stanzas strung together one after another—are indeed, his poem. Each compact verse is a tip of Coen’s hat to iconic motifs of film, theatre, and television, beginning with his own inimitable style (created with his brother) in crazy good films like Fargo, Raising Arizona, and No Country for Old Men.  The result of a long artistic collaboration with Director Neil Pepe, Coen says of their process, “The aim is to get to that point where it’s become a great big joyride for the actors and audience.”  Mission accomplished.  With characters who echo everyone from private dick Sam Spade to Honeymooner Ralph Kramden, Coen harkens to distinctly Americana fare.  

At the center of the five stories, “At the Gazebo” is the longest and perhaps the most intriguing.  Tennessee Williams’ Summer in Smoke immediately comes to mind as dashing Carter (winning Sam Vartholomeos) wrestles with impulses of love and questions of existential truth with buttoned-up Dorothy (spot-on Micaela Diamond.)  Both Vartholomeos and Diamond step into the period with ease and authenticity.  It is a stark contrast from the belly-laugh-out-loud comedy of the opening piece, “The Redeemers.” Both with and apart from his famous brother Joel, Coen has a way of putting highly literate dialogue into the mouths of sometimes not so literate characters.  Even the doofiest of characters, like Cal (comedic wizard Max Casella), articulate gems of wisdom.  Between the cast and Coen’s words, director Pepe had an embarrassment of riches to bring this quirky work to life.  

What an ensemble; replete with veterans of screen (large and small) like Peter Jacobson (House, Waiting for Lefty) whose effortless work is a pleasure to behold, as well as delightful newcomers a heartbeat -out of school like Diamond and Vartholomeos.  Rounding out the cast are the always spot-on Jason Kravitz; excellent Mark Taper debuting actor Ro Bodie; Saul (we could write sonnets for) Rubinek; as close to perfection as they come Miriam Silverman; and funny to the point of mastery, Joey Slotnick and CJ Wilson.

The absolute jewel of the evening is songstress Nellie McKay who sings her original songs seated at the piano, strolling through the aisles playing a ukulele, all with an air of, I know that you know that I am cheeky and fabulous.  At first glance, you might think she is a filler for the scene changes, but on closer consideration, the scene changes are minimal enough to be done in a fraction of the time, thereby swapping the equation.  The scene changes are designed to accommodate her.

A rare night of innovation and artistry awaits you at the Mark Taper Forum.  A Play is A Poem runs through October 13, 2019.  

Tickets are available online at or by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772, or